Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Romania
16.06.2015 - 10.07.2015 33 °C
Compared to other places we’ve visited, we sort of breezed through Eastern Europe by spending just 10 days in Czech Republic, 4 days in Vienna, 3 days in Hungary and then 10 days in Romania. Although the Czech Republic is nice it is really just nice and the great time we had in Vienna was really down to spending time with Britta rather than anything momentous that was seen but we did think the city is beautiful. Overall, it would have been great to have spent less time in Czech and another week in Romania or at least a few days in Bulgaria. Oh well – I have a few ideas for subsequent trips now anyway!
Unfortunately, we only had two days of sunshine in Czech Republic which was a bit of a pain as we had planned to do a fair bit of walking in the forests. Usually, a spot of rain is not too bothersome but it was so cold after spending several weeks in Italy that we just wanted to hunker down.
Baked goods in Prague
The most touristy bridge on earth
One thing we really enjoyed were all the helpful people we encountered in Czech Republic. Our favourite conversation was with an 84 year old who said he learnt English first because he enjoyed the Beatles and secondly because he was part of the revolution and he thought it would be necessary. He informed us he then went on to be a tour guide after the fall of communism but he was now too old to keep up with the tourists. I’m not sure how good a tour guide he actually was though because he told us to get off at the wrong tram stop. Fortunately, I ignored his advice and we alighted at the correct stop!
Karlovy Vary was going to be a favourite destination due to the location of one of our favourite films titled ‘Last Holiday’ starring Queen Latifah but that turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The town was lovely but The GrandHotel Pupp allowed smoking in its gorgeous restaurant so we thought stuff that and walked straight back out; however, the rain had stopped for all of ten minutes so we camped out in the hotel’s terrace café and experienced the best apple strudel we are ever likely to have.
The best strudel ever
We totally adored Cesky Krumlov and partly this was due to the sun, the fact that it was less crowded and its fairytale atmosphere. Going for a paddle was a lovely change too but once again, it was all just ‘nice’ and a more compact version of what we’d seen before. In saying that, it was our favourite place in Czech Republic and not to be missed.
Images of Cesky Krumlov
Vienna is home for Britta and it was so cool to spend a few days with her. We were all on a mission to find the best Sacher torte and Viennese coffee on offer but we made a serious error by ordering our first coffee with no cream. Disaster. Other highlights included walking for miles around the city admiring the lovely tree lined boulevards and ambling around an art gallery, as well as enjoying an afternoon on the hills overlooking Vienna and then walking back down stopping off at a winery along the way.
With Britta in Vienna
Relaxing with a wine on a day out in Vienna's hills
Cake, coffee and more cake
The beautiful Belvedere
Boarding the train to Budapest we were hopeful of seeing something a little different but really Budapest is another ‘nice’ city with ‘nice’ buildings. After a couple of days walking for ever we decided to bus out to Monument Park and that was interesting despite it being a long way to go for less than a 45 minute visit. The park was established to show the public all those intimidating ugly Communist era statues and to give people a glimpse of what life was like under Communism. Looked awful!
Firstly - the statues
Secondly - the lovely buildings
Thirdly - the gorgeous synagogue and the moving Holocaust Memorial
Finally - cafe and chocolates
The thought of a 14 hour train journey was enough to make our stomachs’ curdle after our Indian experiences so we treated ourselves to a private double sleeper cabin with attached private shower and toilet. Awesome! We were so blasé about the train that we assumed the dining car would be the same standard as the one from Vienna to Budapest. We were so, so wrong. Ick – it rivaled the worst of India’s train dining options. In fact, on reflection, it was worse. Just as we were falling asleep at around 11.30pm, the train jolted to a stop and we woken with ‘passport, passport’. Scrambling to put something decent on, find the light switch and then locate the passports was rather difficult. Thinking that was all over, we then crawled back into bed only to be woken again by the Romanian border control about an hour later and they took some time flicking through the pages and muttering to themselves. Not quite as ridiculous though as the border control person in Bucharest who asked me how long I had lived in Romania and where was my residents’ permit. Eh? I had to tell her a couple of times that I lived in New Zealand, that I have never lived in Romania and I thought to myself I never want to live in Bucharest – just let me leave! I think the confusion was that I’d entered on a train and she couldn’t see the faint stamp of my entry, as well as the fact that I came from the small, undesirable nation of New Zealand whose inhabitants are regularly trying to illegally migrate to Romania overland from Hungary.
Romania though is a fabulous, fabulous country. We adored the scenery, the medieval fortified Saxon towns but most of all, we loved the very north. We spent a few days right at the top in Maramures County which borders the Ukraine. It was odd to think that less than 50 metres away (at one point) lay a picturesque country that was warring with itself. Looked peaceful and serene from this side which is admittedly a very long way from the conflict. Anyway, Sighetu Maramures is famous for its cultural traditions (totally normal to see a horse and cart, people raking up the hay and wearing their traditional clothing), the wooden buildings, painted monasteries and it is Elie Wiesel’s boyhood home until he was taken to Birkenau-Auschwitz
Elie Wiesel's House
The very moving Communist Memorial and Museum
A sample of traditional life in the region
The sun setting over the Ukraine
One downer though are the roads. All around the centre of the country, they are mostly good but if you are exploring out of the Saxon tourist triangle, they just disintegrate. You really can’t plan to go faster than 50 to 60 km an hour on the main road. Any deviation from the main road will mean a dirt road even in the biggish towns. We were sort of disappointed not to see a bear. Romania’s forests are vast and are home to a thriving bear population totaling around 6000. We did see a dead wolf though on the side of the road. It was huge and it must have been hit by a truck or so I hope otherwise it would have suffered, I’m sure.
Several images of the Saxon fortified churches and towns
Our final stop was Bucharest before heading on towards Asia again. Well – it was ok but really, it was the same as all the other cities we’d already seen and it was so hot. Romania is super duper hot by the way and probably not to be recommended to travel in during July. Anyway, it had lovely trees some interesting architecture (the second largest building in the world built by their crazy communist dictator is unreal) and it has lots of wonderful eateries – with smoke fumes billowing all over the place. Honestly, we were so intrigued and appalled by the prevalent smoking that we started googling cancer rates and life expectancy for Russians, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians.
The giant building in Bucharest
Fabulous eateries in Bucharest
And where would we be without a fang photo
It was great to spend so much time in Europe but to be honest, aside from Sicily and the north of Romania, it is all rather (dare I say it) a bit dull and perhaps that’s too strong a word or perhaps a bit too repetitive in terms of architecture and food although the cultural differences were fairly obvious. Even though it was easy and relaxing, we won’t be back to this neck of the woods for a very long time or if at all except to catch up with friends.